When I was doing my high school diploma in English in the mid-1990s, I was asked to submit an essay on a text of my choice. I chose iconic work with themes such as eternity and impermanence, the burdens and benefits of family, and the inseparability of creation and destruction.
But Miss Allsobrook turned down my proposal for Neil Gaiman’s fantasy epic The Sandman on the grounds that the text must be a literary work. If I needed any sort of confirmation that The Sandman was worthy of an A-level lit-crit essay, it was often provided by the critical admiration heaped on the work in the years that followed.
And today, fans are about to witness the comic finally make it to the big screen. On August 5, Netflix will release its highly-anticipated, big-budget Netflix adaptation with a star-studded cast starring Tom Sturridge, Jenna Coleman, Charles Dance, Gwendoline Christie, Taron Egerton and more.
This isn’t the first time The Sandman has been slated for adaptation. Roger Avary had intended to direct a version inspired in part by the work of animator Jan Švankmayer in the 1990s. This simply has to be in the “What if?” the comic readers remain. Files alongside Terry Gilliam’s Watchmen adaptation.
But maybe now is a better time for The Sandman’s big screen debut. The success of Peter Jackson’s Tolkein adaptations and George RR Martin’s Game of Thrones have created a global audience for whom high fantasy is no embarrassing departure. And for better or for worse, we live in a pop culture landscape that is dominated by comic book films.
The Sandman is, of course, quite a far cry from the stuff that makes up the Marvel multiplex machine. Main actor Sturridge delivers ironic-melancholic observations rather than Iron Man wisdom. But the Marvel Cinematic Universe has demonstrated the value of worldbuilding. For viewers invested in this fictional world, the sense of a persistent universe larger than the struggles depicted in each individual film lends emotional and thematic weight.
The Sandman can also be viewed as a nod to the comic book tradition of “crossovers,” but rather than a group of costumed adventurers, he draws his cast from mythology around the world. When Netflix gets to the third major storyline, A Season of Mists, viewers are treated to the spectacle of Norse, Egyptian and Japanese gods along with demonic and angelic figures from Christian mythology arriving at Morpheus’ castle to vie for the possession of the Key to Offering Hell – Comparative Mythology as Easter Egg Spotting.
When the first issue of The Sandman appeared in 1989, it was an important part of mainstream comics’ efforts to improve their cultural standing. This was a process that continued through the 1980s, reaching a turning point in 1986 with the publication of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns by DC Comics and the first issues of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen, the twin pillars of revisionist superhero storytelling , which spurred the development of “mature reader” titles. When groundbreaking DC editor Karen Berger called Gaiman in 1987 and asked him to present a monthly series, she continued to push the doors opened by Miller, Moore and Gibbons, dismissing Gaiman’s initial suggestions for resurrecting existing characters and instead insisting that he “someone no – you’ve seen it before”.
The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen managed to kill their idols. They argued that the kind of individualistic power celebrated in the superhero genre was problematic at the very least and fascist at worst, and could never offer meaningful solutions to the world’s problems. In that sense, they remained youthful. This is not meant as criticism: it was virtuoso entertainment and provocation for readers who had grown up with the bombastic brusque individualism of various supermen and women but found that ethos less compelling as they got older.
The Sandman, on the other hand, sidestepped or ignored engagement with superheroism, revisionist or otherwise. Morpheus is neither hero nor antihero. Sometimes he barely counts as a protagonist. The event that opens the story, the occult ritual portrayed in the first episode of the Netflix series, sees him being held against his will by an Aleister Crowley analogue, the Magus, Roderick Burgess (inevitably played by Dance). . In The Season of Mists, he neither seeks the key to Hell nor makes the final decision on who receives it. He may be immortal and more powerful than gods, but for much of the story he simply responds to events and fulfills obligations.
It wasn’t just the de-emphasis on masculine clumsiness that helped The Sandman find an older and more feminine audience. It actively celebrated queer identities, most obviously in the stories starring Rose Walker, played by Kyo Ra in the upcoming adaptation. In the comic The Doll’s House, her flamboyant cross-dressing landlord, Hal, is the most likable human character she meets, and later, in A Game of You, we see her move to New York and join her neighbors as a lesbian couple and one new best friend is Wanda, a trans woman.
Inevitably, by today’s standards, the treatment of such themes in a 30-year-old comic can seem underdeveloped, even crude. There’s an awkward whiff of non-normative identities being used as marks of more general strangeness, and no doubt Morpheus’ non-binary sibling Desire would be referred to as “she” rather than “it” if the comics were written today.
Gaiman has acknowledged this, and while a balanced assessment of this part of The Sandman must consider the relative lack of detailed and adequate vocabulary at the time of its production, a 2014 defense of his treatment of trans characters contains a strikingly contemporary-sounding motivation, emphasizing their presence in the comics: “I found a lot of the stuff I saw from some feminist circles in the late ’80s really offensive when I saw them dismissing trans women as not real women and I decided I’d do that wanted those shots in the story.”
The Dollhouse is The Sandman’s second major story, so we probably won’t see how these characters are treated on screen just yet. But identity is treated as fluid throughout the story, and the presence of actors on the cast list whose gender or skin color differs from that of the comic book characters they will portray suggests that this will remain a key theme. Given the crushing predictability of these casting decisions, some corners of the internet have been met with outrage, including the nonsensical spectacle of complaints about non-binary actor Mason Alexander Park being cast as non-binary character Desire. Gaiman made short work of such answers. As he succinctly wrote on Twitter in response to a criticism that prioritized silly rhymes over meaning, “Sandman woke up in 1988, and it ain’t gone broke yet.”
One thing The Sandman shares with many of the “adult reader” comics of the 1980s and 1990s is that critical response tended to praise the writers more than the artists. But one thing Miss Allsobrook was right about was that comics are not literature. They are an art form in their own right and are at their best when meaning emerges from the interplay of writing and drawing.
Of the dozens of artists who have brought Gaiman’s characters to life, Dave McKean is the one with the strongest claim to full co-authorship, having provided the covers for every Sandman release. An exquisite draftsman, color photocopier and early Photoshop user, his beguiling collages come across as thematic meditations on the stories they introduce rather than illustrative summaries of their major events, daring the insides to do justice to their achievement and ambition.
Gaiman was closely involved in the production of the adaptation, and if she can capture a fraction of McKean’s visual flair, fans and newcomers alike should be in for a treat. Even Miss Allsobrook could be into it.
The Sandman is on Netflix from August 5th. John Miers is a cartoonist, illustrator and lecturer in illustration at the Kingston School of Art, johnmiers.com